Bhutan’s middle class, armed forces and youth among voters who delivered poll...

Bhutan’s middle class, armed forces and youth among voters who delivered poll shock to PM Tobgay’s PDP

Gopilal Acharya,
DNT President Lotey Tshering speaks to an elderly voter. Photo: Belle Dorji Photography

The primary round of the third National Assembly election in Bhutan sprung a major surprise last Saturday with the incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay getting knocked out of the contest. PDP secured the third highest votes.

A new party—Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT)—headed by well-known medical surgeon Lotey Tshering secured the highest number of votes followed by the incumbent opposition DrukPhuenseum Tshogpa (DPT). DNT and DPT will now contest the runoff, called the general round, slated for October 18.

Four political parties contested the primary round. Bhutan’s Constitution allows any number of registered political parties to contest the primary round, but only two that secure the highest and the second highest number of total votes battle it out in the general round. The winner then forms the government, while the loser takes up the role of the opposition.

What the numbers say

DPT President Pema Gyamtsho has promised more media freedom. Photo: DPT Facebook Page

 DNT secured the highest number of votes (92,722), followed by DPT (90,020), PDP (79,883) and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) [28,473]. Of the 108,580 postal ballots, DNT secured the highest (37,556), followed by DPT (36,912), PDP (23,703) and BKP (10,409).

Read Also: In major upset, Bhutan voters defeat ruling PDP in first round of natioanl election

The voter turnout was 66.36 percent with 291,098 people turning up to cast their votes, of the total 438,663 registered voters. Of the total votes polled, 182,518 were cast on the electronic voting machines (EVM) and 108,580 through postal ballots. Women voters outnumbered men.

In the 2013 National Assembly primary round, then incumbent DPT had secured 44.52 percent of the total votes. PDP trailed at second place with 32.53 percent. But then the general round saw a major upset when the PDP soundly defeated the DPT to form the ruling government.

Many, especially DPT supporters, blamed this on India. Just two weeks before the polling day, the Indian government withdrew its subsidy for kerosene and cooking gas it supplies to Bhutan. The subsidy cut led to panic in Bhutan as the price of fuel and cooking gas shot up overnight. The result was a big win for PDP.

How the upset happened this time

For PDP, it was the postal ballots that cost them dearly. Voters in Bhutan travel to their designated polling booths based on their civil registry to cast their votes. However, the Election Commission allows postal ballots for diplomats and persons working abroad, those residing outside Bhutan for the performance of a special government duty, members of the armed forces, students, civil servants, and the spouses of and dependents of individuals fall under these categories.

This means the segment using the postal ballot facility is primarily the educated lot, mostly civil servants, members of the armed forces and students above 18 years. It’s this segment that delivered the blow to PDP.

Observers cite various reasons for PDP’s loss—from anti-incumbency to the party’s one-sided drive on the grassroots. PDP also antagonised sections of its supporters by replacing candidates in a number of constituencies. For instance, some PDP supporters said that the party made a huge miscalculation in replacing its highly capable sitting candidate of Tashichhoeling constituency in southern Bhutan with a new lightweight. PDP is also not popular among civil servants.

On the other hand, DNT positioned itself as a humbler entity and cut its old tie with PDP to fashion out a new identity. Until recently many saw DNT as PDP’s ‘B’ team, given the horse-trading of candidates between the two parties in 2013. Seven DNT candidates, including its president and vice-president, joined PDP after the primary round in 2013. Five of them won then. All of them lost this time.

DPT went into the fray, as its president said, not expecting anything much. But its support base, mostly concentrated in eastern Bhutan (see the map continued to remain strong despite the party’s beleaguered status after the 2013 elections. DPT sprung a major surprise in this primary round by winning 22 of the 47 constituencies.

DNT has promised to address social inequity if it comes to power. The party’s guiding principle, according to its president, is “to narrow the gap between haves and have-nots”. He has also said disparity in healthcare was a big national issue in the country, affecting progress in all other sectors.

Former agriculture and forests minister Pema Gyamtsholeads the DPT. Gyamtsho was the opposition leader between 2013 and 2018. His party has promised to achieve national self-reliance by 2025. He has promised that DPT would further develop the agriculture and tourism sectors. He has also vouched for media freedom.

PDP bows out, for now

Conceding defeat on September 15, former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, left a congratulatory message on his Facebook page: “I would like to congratulate the President of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa and the President of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa and all the candidates of the two parties for their outstanding performance in the primary round of Bhutan’s third parliamentary election… The people of Bhutan have spoken. And the People’s Democratic Party graciously accepts their decision. The will of the people must prevail in a democracy. I wish Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa all the best in the general elections.”

Bhutan became the world’s youngest democracy in 2008 when the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to change the country’s political system to a democratic constitutional monarchy. In 2006, the fourth king abdicated the throne and installed his eldest son as the monarch. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was formally crowned in 2008, the same year Bhutan elected its first democratic government.